Larimer County sheriff vows to protect visitors if Rocky Mountain National Park shuts down
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) – A sheriff on the eastern end of Rocky Mountain National Park is encouraging people to visit the park even if a government shutdown closes it down.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said Thursday that he’ll provide emergency services and law enforcement to visitors on the eastern side of the park within his county in the event of a shutdown. Smith said merchants in nearby Estes Park whose business would be hurt by a lack of visitors shouldn’t be pawns in Congress’ budgetary battle.
“The entrance stations may not be staffed to collect fees and hand out maps, but that shouldn’t stop visitors from being able to enjoy the park,” Smith said in a statement, later adding in an interview: “I’m encouraging people to come up to their park, absolutely.”
Park officials said Smith has no jurisdiction on federal property and in past instances where sheriff’s deputies have responded to emergencies there, they have done so under cooperative agreements and at the invitation of the park.
“If the federal government shuts down, the park will be closed. And closed means the public is not allowed inside. It’s as simple as that,” said Patrick O’Driscoll, a spokesman at the National Park Service’s regional office in suburban Denver. Limited staff including law enforcement personnel would remain at the park to “protect life, property, and provide emergency services.”
Smith’s move is not unprecedented by elected government officials. In Arizona, former Gov. Fife Symington responded to a November 1995 closure of Grand Canyon National Park with a force of National Guard troops and state park rangers to persuade the president to keep one of Arizona’s prime tourist attractions open. Park officials rejected the offer to run the park with state workers, but parts of the Grand Canyon were kept open during a second shutdown a month later under a deal with the Department of Interior.
Rocky Mountain National Park is about 50 miles northwest of Denver and spans about 266,000 acres or 415 square miles. The park attracted more than 3 million visitors last year. About 75,000 people visited in April.
Smith said that the sprawling park has no fence and has several trails leading into it, making it nearly impossible to keep people out. And he said people got into the park during the 1995 shutdown.
“If that’s going to be the case, we need to make sure those folks are safe,” Smith said. “I don’t see any trespassing going into those public lands that are open.”
Rocky Mountain National Park spokesman Larry Frederick said they’re preparing to comb through backcountry permits to track down campers. Should a shutdown happen Friday at midnight, notification at campgrounds and visitor centers would happen Saturday. Staff would decide whether to search remote areas to notify people there.
People entering the park on roads would find gates or barricades with signs that read: “Because of the federal government shutdown, all national parks are closed.” Those signs would also be posted at trails leading into the park.
Those caught in the park during the shutdown would be asked to leave or face arrest or a citation, Frederick said.
“We enjoy a good working relationship with the sheriff’s offices in Boulder, Grand and Larimer counties,” Frederick said of the three counties in the park. “We work well together in a cooperative spirit, and we hope our cooperative relationship continue with our neighboring law enforcement agencies.”
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